Episode 55: Podcast Saga Part 8 (Kind of…)


(Music fades in)

            The next step in this journey, as I define it, would be to discuss the merits of the podcasting medium itself, specifically what it can offer fiction creators that other mediums can’t. Yes, there’s that entire two dudes talking phenomenon to be discussed, but I’ll get to that in a bit. And I have a reason for this timing.

            But for now, I need to make some clarifications. Because there’s one virtue that I might think is medium-defining, but it isn’t the end-all, be-all, particularly in the context of fiction podcasting. You see podcasting isn’t just great for stories because it’s a space without a gatekeeper. That’s a huge part of it, especially for communities that have been excluded from other spaces. But really, there’s something about the medium itself and all of its characteristics that makes certain audio fiction shows possible. And I mean that these stories and adventures that really couldn’t happen in any other medium. Podcasting’s characteristics and features make the atmosphere that these potential podcasts need to breathe.

            Here’s the thing, the characteristics of any medium can influence the story a creator end up telling for better or worse. And it’s usually more apparent when it comes to the worst side of it. For podcasts, or certain audio fiction shows, they couldn’t exist in a visual-heavy world, and the serial nature of podcasts probably helps them too.

            I think the most common iteration of this idea is the whole book to movie adaptation conversation. There’s the classic “the book is always better” cliché, the “many people will have never read the book, so movie adaptations keep the story alive,” copout, and then there’s the “I’m fourteen and this is deep approach” of “they’re just different, so Mommy, Daddy, stop fighting.” And, yes, that got a bit dark, but bear with me. I mean, I could have made it a whole lot darker.

            Really, what that whole conversation actually shows is that translating one story across mediums is a task that is incredibly easy to mess up and might be ill-advised to even attempt. And the reason why may not be so apparent. I mean if it was, I’d like to think people would stop trying. And hey, there are success out there. The Fault in Our Stars, in my opinion, showed that it could be done. That when making an adaptations, changes could be strategically made to keep the heart of the book and make a good movie, but then there’s something like The Circle, the 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, and The Circle, the 2017 movie directed by James Ponsoldt based off of a screenplay from him and Dave Eggers. Yes, the original author.

            That example is pretty telling. The book is incredible and one of my favorites. But the movie crashed and burned hard. Even by adaptation standards. With the original author’s involvement, I don’t think it’s not so much a matter of “the screenwriter didn’t understand the story or really care.” In fact, I think it gets down to this issue that cinematic mediums presented a very real limitation that couldn’t be worked around in this case. And that’s where this whole thing starts to become relevant for podcasting.

            Podcasting as a medium is strictly an auditory one. And for some people that means it’s inherently inferior, which doesn’t hold and doesn’t make sense. In an auditory medium, the listener has more control. They can conjure up their own images, and the content creator must give them enough material with which to do that. And while it might look like a limitation, it actually ends up being an advantage for certain stories. And that’s what I want this next section of the podcast saga to be about, but because I’m a little anxious cinnamon roll whose always worried about being understood, particularly when it comes to strains of thought that I’ve been playing with for a while. I’m going to use this discussion on medium and translation in an unrelated context to flesh out what I’m trying to describe for those later episodes. I’m going to work with The Circle and Mob Psycho 100 before I actually go into what I see in the audio fiction space.

(Music fades out)

            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 55.

(Music fades in)

            Also, fun fact, I’m going to be inching towards spoiler territory in this episode. I don’t think you’ll get any value out of seeing the movie, The Circle, but that’s your choice. And I would recommend the book, so maybe you need to stop here and go read it. I know this audience will care more about podcasts than about The Circle, so I’m going to give you fair warning.

            I’m also going to be talking about a live action adaptation of Mob Psycho 100, but that’s going to stay a discussion about the set up without diving deeper into the actual plot. And that’s towards the end of this episode. So I really need you to make a decision about The Circle before we go ahead.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Okay, back to it. For both the book and movie, The Circle is the story of Mae Holland a recent graduate who gets a job at The Circle, a powerful tech company that serves as stand in for Google or Facebook. Or a combination of the two in certain circumstances. And this company is all about visibility and transparency. Not just about sharing of information like patents or research but information about ourselves as well. “Privacy is theft,” they say. “Secrets are lies,” they say. “Sharing is caring,” they say. These are the beliefs heralded by the circle and eventually Mae as well. The company’s goal of complete transparency on all levels of societies is spelled out clearly: they want to know what you are thinking, but hey, at least, everyone will have access to that information.

            These issues were timely when the novel was publish in 2013 but perhaps more so now, as scandals in the tech industry constantly reveal not just how much data they have on us but how financially valuable that data is to them, creating a clear incentive to accrue more of it no matter the means. And that information gathering is largely one sided. I.e. the company has all of this data, but the way they use or their goals for it are not explicitly explained to the user at any point. It’s almost been enough to completely swing our opinions against disclosure and transparency because—you know—that’s worked so well thus far.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            And maybe it’s a sign of the times, but The Circle, the story, doesn’t condemn publicity for the sake of privacy nor does it depict the conundrum as being either-or. It takes on a more nuanced approach. And that’s fitting because here’s the thing. Privacy isn’t all that great either. And this is where we start to push the spoiler line. Fair and final warning.

            At some point in the story, Mae’s personal life starts to fall apart a bit. And her initial reaction is what a lot of us would have, and that is: to keep her private life private. Despite the fact that her social life is increasingly being reduced to and taken over by social events held by The Circle, and she’s even judged for not participating enough. As the book goes on, Mae’s attempts to keep her private life private were often to the detriment of those she cared about because she has resources through The Circle to help her family, but she doesn’t have the ability to utilize them on her own. It’s only when she opens up about a family trial to a therapist provided by The Circle that a solution is immediately offered and implemented. The takeaway is this: Mae offers a private matter to the public for consideration, they worked through together, and wow, immediate and pretty great solution.

            The thing is. This isn’t true for every character. Mae’s friend Annie, who got Mae that job at The Circle in the first place, probably suffers the worst for it. Once Mae gets this reprieve from The Circle, she jumps deeper into the world and is rewarded for it. Everyone loves her and starts to forget about Annie who was previously this hotshot type figure. To compete with Mae’s growing popularity, Annie jumps into a project about family histories, and yeah, that doesn’t end well for her. In fact, I don’t think it would end well for a great deal of us, I imagine. The problem is that while, sure, you could argue that the past should be in the public record—history is important, shouldn’t be replicated, and all that—the past shouldn’t be tied down to a singular person as an inheritor of the sins therein. And that’s where The Circle, as in the company, and Annie go wrong.

            You see, the thing that makes the past so different is that we can’t change it. If someone is struggling in the present, that is their trial, and we can work with them to improve that matter, but we can’t do that with something that happened one hundred years ago. What we can do is work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But the temptation therein is to find the supposed perpetrator-to-be or a scapegoat for all that could happen. And while that’s a role that shouldn’t exist, it’s one that Annie conveniently fits into, and that’s where her life starts to go awry.

            Ultimately, Eggers could best illustrate the need for nuance in the whole privacy versus publicity debate by showing the realities of it. And that’s what he does. Yes, some aspects of transparency are beneficial, as he shows through Mae but there are times to let sleeping dogs lie or at least to make them public in a different and non-person-centric context. The reader of the book is led to think that disclosure is a delicate art form not a rule of thumb. Which is not something you could say about the movie.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            For the sake of its runtime, characters and events were cut despite being central to the themes of the book, and Mae was given a different ending that would hopefully make her more sympathetic to the viewer but because it didn’t really fit within the larger schema, particularly for anyone who had read the book, it just landed flat. At least to me. And maybe to other people who had plenty of other reasons to dislike this movie even if the ending didn’t make the top ten list.

            The failure of the movie, then, can be simply summed up as “movies have to be within two hours and ideally box office successes.” Now, the book is about 400 pages, which can make it a bit daunting, but it never dragged on because every event was thematically appropriate and centered around characters who were also thematically appropriate and needed to be there. So maybe you can see what the problem was in the end.

            In order to exist, the movie’s narrative moved away from the themes and focused more on Mae, so anything deemed (quote) “unessential” to Mae’s storyline was cut or reworked, but the problem is that Mae’s story line is centered on her coming to a very specific conclusion, which is not the one the reader is supposed to come to. I mean I could say viewer, but yeah we’ve diverged pretty far at this point.

            You see, Mae is set up as the protagonist largely because her dip into the world of The Circle is meant to mirror the readers’. For all tech companies’ calls for transparency, they don’t go out of their way to make us understand the realities of their work environments beyond as a mere recruitment tool. Think of all the absurd perks and parties you hear about. But in terms of the day to day realities, we are discovering the world with her. But that isn’t to say she’s the only thing we’ll care about.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            In terms of making the movie more palatable for audiences, i.e. the shift in the movie’s ending, the concern there likely was profitability. Probably. A lot about this movie’s production focused strictly on trying to make maximize the revenue-generating potential of this movie, and that also created problems.

            When I saw the movie in the theatre because I am an optimistic fool, I first thought that the adaptation would have worked better as a limited run television show. When considering the source material and the story therein, I was probably right. When considering profitability and marketability, on the other hand, I was majorly wrong. If made into a television show, The Circle isn’t the type of story that could sell merchandise, and limited run series don’t offer the same programming security that other potential shows might. Because you aren’t going to get too much out of it. I mean, ultimately, you might be able to get three seasons out of this book. Maybe. I mean admittedly I didn’t sit down and plan everything out, including the possible additions you could make to the story, but you know what I mean.

            My point is that this book has a clear end to it, and once you hit that point narrative-wise, there’s no going back. And to design a show like this is pushing the bounds of the established television norms just a bit. Not past the point of no return. But further than some executives would be willing to go. Remember that whole “presentism” thing that keeps coming back up? The current status quo generates immediate profit so why push the boundaries? There are benefits to straying, but they aren’t so appealing. Nor are they guaranteed.

 (Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Here’s the point, though. Or a better one. Books as a media form don’t have too many restrictions. A book is a collection of written words across a somewhat reasonable number of pages that tells a cohesive story, and even with that description, though you might agree with it, you might immediately come up with example that stray from that mold a bit. There’s a fluidity to that medium that isn’t there with movies, particularly the kind produced by a major studio with a lot on the line, there are more stringent requirements.


            For those, there are stringent requirements. There are boxes they have to check, and that’s where things go wrong. If you are making a movie like this, it’s hard to justify having the movie run beyond the industry standard of two-ish hours, and there was no clear point in the book where it could have been broken up to make two movies, assuming two movies could have been approved. And yeah, everyone involved did the best they could with those parameters. This just wasn’t a story that could fit within that particularly mold. To add to that, commercially-driven movies, for lack of a better term, need to be grounded in characters. If only because, that’s what they’ve been doing. And that has generated a lot of revenue for the production companies.

            On the other hand, books can take more liberties. For example, they can ground their narrative in a thematic current not in a person or people.

                        In other words, the type of movie that The Circle was trying to be had a structure that was built up in such a way that you had to constantly check back to what had worked before, but with novels, you only have to check if what you’re doing is working now. It’s the norms and expectations of the cinematic genre that—in this case—mucked up the final product. And that’s the sort of thing I’ve been discussing. Podcasting doesn’t have a sort of Big Brother-type figure whose presence and expectations dictate the final product. But there is also a sense in which the proposed narrative didn’t line up with the proposed vehicle of delivery.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            There was a sense in which trying to show The Circle and what The Circle was making actually weakened the immersion. That the visuals didn’t help but actually hindered the audience’s ability to be engaged in the story.

            Both in the book and in the movie, there were clearly flaws in what The Circle was developing, but in the text, the reader was left to imagine what these devices were and looked like and because we were engaged in that activity, anything that wasn’t explicitly said would end up being ignored or could be planned around in our minds. Like if there was a problem with a User Interface. In the book, if I was aware of this consumer preference on any level, I could imagine a version of this UI in which a quirk was planned for. But in the movie, I can see whether or not the relevant crew member planned for it and if their proposed solution—the solution that is sealed as the actual one by sheer virtue of it being in the film—is acceptable. And it often wasn’t.

            The takeaway therein is that sometimes it’s better to not show or tell at all. And if you can instead build up a rapport with the audience, they’ll do that part of the work for you. I think this is the most apparent in the many cases of science fiction based audio fiction that are out there. They don’t show me the technology, so they don’t give me the temptation to reject it, and this is particularly important if they are only a few shades shy of reality. These creators are letting me build a world I’m willing to accept, and so it’s easier for me to go along with them on their journey. but some of those flaws I can device my own solution to.ersion. BEcause 0 pos

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            Here’s another example of this just to push the point home. To catch you up, Netflix has been hosting live action adaptation of anime series, produced—from what I can tell—with a Japanese production company in every case. And from that arrangement and some of the things Netflix has done in mind, you could be reasonably assured that these adaptations are free to do what they need to do without constantly being checked against focus groups or hastily defined norms. You might also draw the opposite conclusion because of some of the things Netflix has done, but look, I’m trying to say that there’s a chance.

            Until you see—for example—the Mob Psycho 100 adaptation. And then that all goes out the window. Seriously, that adaptation hurt my soul a little bit.

            I’ve done an episode before on the anime, Mob Psycho 100, which was an adaptation of One’s manga series of the same name. Mob Psycho 100 is the story of a middle school named Mob who might have enviable psychic abilities but wants to be an ordinary young person who also gets a girlfriend. A specific girlfriend who once ditched his psychic abilities to gawk at a traditionally handsome young man.

            The premise and so much about the show twist tropes and expectations. You are led to think one thing, and then everything falls apart. And at the end, you have an “oh yeeeaaah” moment about all of it when you realize that what at first looked at the wrong decision actually made a lot of sense. That’s kind of the show’s shtick.

            But the Netflix adaptation overlooks all of that just to hit certain plot points. And I can’t pretend that this isn’t the actual coffin nail. By focusing on getting to the destination they cut corners that stripped most of the gags and character arcs of their tetth. But at the same time, when I was working on that initial podcast episode, I was trying to figure out why this series was just so bad compared to the original, and when I was typing up this script, something just hit me.

            It was a cat trying to jump onto the window sill behind me. But after that, I realized that this show demonstrated a very simple truth about the virtues of animation.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            You see, while animation isn’t just for kids, it allowed for creative twists to reality that can make telling stories to children easier. Think talking animals. Literally anything like that. But this also made Mob Psycho 100 possible. The art style of the anime—which was adapted from that of the manga—was largely simple as a baseline and then if any needed to accented like a character’s reaction, it was exaggerated to the point of almost being a caricature. And this didn’t create visual gags, it built tension in the moment and highlighted the futility of it all.

            The art style played into One’s game of playing into the audience’s expectations and games only for everything to fall apart when the characters actually did the logical thing. Then there’s the whole psychic abilities, supernatural aspect. Replicating the movement of objects or the atmosphere with CGI might have been way beyond the scope of the show’s budget, which would explain why so many of the special effects fell flat.

            And while the actors on the show try to compensate for the limits of the human body, please no. That’s the best response for it. It just doesn’t work.

(Music fades out and new music fades in)

            In this case, visuals—a specific and more flexible form of them—benefited and even made the storytelling possible. Obvious for a podcast, you don’t have that option. But look, visuals hurt The Circle movie. Or it kicked it while it was down. Different mediums have different limitations. And those don’t detract from the story if you’re smart about it. When trying to make something, a content creator can either find a dance partner that can compensate or that will burn everything down. The podcasts I’m going to feature in this next leg definitely found a dance partner that works for them. (Pause) We aren’t going to talk about the latter. I promise I try to be nice. I throw shade, but I try to be nice.

(Music fades out)